Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Chronicles of an ongoing battle between solipsism and empiricism

On one hand there is a real physical world out there with objects that we can see, hear, touch, perceive. Living entities are the most intriguing of them all- we can talk to them, we can listen to them, we can play with them, we can fight with them, we can build relationships with them.

On the other hand there is the mental world- the world of thoughts, emotions, ideas and dreams. Mathematics, philosophy, music, painting etc. are major manifestations of this mental world. They often give us a glimpse of the existence of an abstract world beyond the physical world we live in – the abstract world nearing to have a physical existence of its own, defying the word “abstract”.

We live in the physical world, with mountains, rivers, trees, animals, houses, roads, cars, schools, colleges, hospitals etc. but often we encounter bridges to the abstract world like the 9 3/4-th platform in Harry Potter’s stories. These bridges range from critically acclaimed works of art like Claude Monet’s paintings, John Keats’s poetry, Amir Khusrao’s and Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics and Plato’s dialogues to myriads of events we experience in pop culture- Sachin Tendulkar’s cover drives on TV, Ultimate Warrior’s crazy promos before Wrestlemania, Rick and Morty’s trippy episodes to name a few. In this blog I shall try to explore several of these bridges between the physical and the mental worlds in a methodical fashion . At the core of all my posts recurs a constant struggle between two conflicting ideas- the idea of realism/ empiricism/ materialism, i.e., this world exists as it is independent of us and we are perceiving it through our sensory organs and modifying it through our motor organs, and the idea of idealism/solipsism, i.e. there is nothing real in this world outside our mind, all our friends, family, jobs don’t really exist, they are just impressions in our mind and this world is nothing but a simulation. My posts however don’t resolve the age old debate among philosophers regarding these two contradictory epistemological positions. I don’t think anybody ever will be able to do so. My posts simply put this debate in the right context, and throw more light on it.

One more thing, I have used the existing terminology in academic “philosophy” very freely here and in my other posts partly due to my my academic background in science as opposed to philosophy and partly due to my little lack of reverence for existing academic “philosophy” to explore philosophical themes. Academic “philosophy” explores philosophical themes only through words, crafted in a meticulous fashion. But in my humble opinion, the same themes can be captured only if the words are backed by actions in day to day life giving the appropriate context to those words, e.g. how we talk to our colleagues, how we interact with our friends, how invested we are in our romances, are as important as scholarly articles in understanding philosophy.  As Kabir says,

“Labzo se hum khel rahe hai, maana haat na aaye,

Paani paani rat te rat te pyaasa hi raha jaaye

Shola shola rat te rat te lab par aanch na aaye

Ek chingari lab par rakh lo, lab turant jal jaaye”

(We are playing with words, but we don’t understand the meaning. We keep chanting “water” but we stay thirsty. We keep chanting “fire” but we don’t feel anything on our lips, but the moment we put a flame on our lips,  our lips burn).

Growing up in a society full of friends, family, classes, jobs, degrees and honors it is very hard to perceive the possibility of the existence of a world beyond the physical. But life experiences can be such (getting immersed in music or painting, a feeling of extreme pain or cornucopia of joy in love, an emptiness through isolation from society in a new country or job) that the existence of the abstract world not only becomes conceivable but can even take over the existence of the physical world in one’s consciousness. There are thoughts going on in our head and we translate only a few of the thoughts into action. In mathematical language, it is a many to one mapping from the mental world to the physical world. In extraordinary circumstances like solitude, it is often hard to distinguish the world of thoughts from the world of action because there are too many thoughts and too few actions. The lack of onlookers to verify the reality perceived through our senses adds to it. Our consciousness is largely collective after all, a lot of the common sense we use for our day to day actions is imbibed by us from society through collective wisdom. With lack of people, the collective wisdom may start fading.

And with it, often comes lurking forward the fear of death, an event probably absolute in an otherwise conflicting world of ideas and arguments and events where probably every argument can be countered by another argument. Though I shall attempt to make my posts in this blog be as drenched in bright sunshine as possible, somewhat like Ruskin Bond’s writing, I cannot guarantee that death won’t expose its dark face here and there in the posts.

Please check out the posts, thanks for visiting the site.

 

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Calcutta Corner

Durga Puja 2018

A year has passed since I wrote my blog post “Durga Puja 2017” and now with Puja here in the city once again, it’s time to start writing my new blog post- “Durga Puja 2018”. Last year’s Puja was my first one in seven years. Since I spent majority of those seven years far away from Calcutta, last year’s Puja felt very surreal. On the other hand, this Puja feels like a regular event in my life largely owing to the fact that I have visited Calcutta about once a month since last puja and hence have largely been able to re-establish my connection with the city.

In my last year’s Durga Puja post, I mentioned that this festival is not just about the five day long rituals and the pandals and the crowds but is also about the Bengali literature that is  published before the festival in the form of puja magazines, the movies that come out in the theaters during the puja week, etc.  But unlike my last year’s post where I talked about the pandals first followed by the magazines and the cinema, this time I shall follow a chronological order and hence first start with the works of fiction that I liked from this year’s Puja magazines, followed by the movies and then the pandals.

Literature:

Pujabarshiki Anandamela comes out about two months prior to the Puja. About a month later Sharodiya Anandabazar Patrika gets published, and right around the inception of the festival the local newspaper and magazine distributor puts a fresh copy of Sharodiya Desh at one’s doorstep. As a result, by the time of writing this post which is during Mahaashtami and Mahanabami, I have been able to read the Ananadamela almost in its entirety, a large chunk of Ananadabazar Patrika and almost nothing from Desh. So here are the novels I liked so far from this year’s Puja literature.

Mahidadur Antidote (The antidote made by Mahidadu) by Dipanwita Ray (teenage science fiction novel)- published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

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This is first time I actually read a science fiction novel in Bengali which can be called hard science fiction without any qualm. As I had pointed out before in an earlier blog post of mine on alchemy, the much adored science fiction stories by Satyajit Ray are way too much on the softer side. There are almost no scientific details in those stories, most of the events defy scientific logic and hence seem highly implausible. On the other hand, this novel is quite a successful attempt at creating an extremely scientifically accurate post-modern world, where humans commute from one place to another in flying cars, visit artificial parks for recreation where rivers, fountains and sea beaches from the natural world have been replicated for human entertainment, human DNA is corrected at birth to bring out the best features in humans, etc. Though it all seems to be an utopia initially, soon there is a turn of events which makes the protagonist question everything that he has been raised up on. The DNA of most humans is corrected at birth by some other humans in power such that an average human is rendered bereft of the power of creativity, imagination, skepticism and dissent. Similar dystopian vision of the world has been dealt with in modern classics like “Brave New World” and “1984” (sadly I haven’t read either yet) or popular movies like “The Matrix” and “Equilibrium”. Yet the plot of this novel “Mahidadur Antidote” seems quite original with the traditional Bengali emotional touch to all the events in the novel, which are vastly futuristic and global in scope and scale.

For me, the beauty of this sci-fi novel lies in the details with which all the different aspects of the post-modern world have been depicted though it has been written for teenagers. But I can imagine that this level of technical details will reduce its entertainment value for a lot of general readers.  Nevertheless, since the society we live has become much more globalized and the amount of information an average person has access to has increased exponentially thanks to the internet, I feel it won’t be too inane to presume that such technically rich hard science fiction novels will capture the psyche of a Bengali reader, known for their intellectual curiosity and cultural refinement, and childish science fiction stories of Satyajit Ray with no technical details whatsoever will pass into oblivion. But sadly not many will probably read this novel. Rather they will continue talking about some Professor Shanku stories that came out forty years back and Satyajit Ray’ son Sandip Roy will make more big budget movies  on them. Another glaring example of modern intellectual Bengalis living vicariously through past legends and ignoring gems of the present!

Jipur Jawa Asha (Jipu Goes Back and Forth) by Sourabh Mukhopadhyay (teenage fiction novel) – published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

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Another beautiful novel that came out in this year’s Anandamela, though very different in flavor from the previous novel. It is largely about the changing times, how schooling has become extremely competitive and grueling in the cities and how refreshing and productive it can be for a kid to take a break from urban schooling and study in a countryside school for a while. The kid here, Jipu, who is the protagonist of the novel, is forced to go to a countryside school because his father loses his job and is unable to pay the heavy tuition fees of his current school, which is meant for kids from upper middle class urban families. Though his parents are traumatized by the experience and are deeply concerned about the future of their son, Jipu falls in love with his new school, thoroughly enjoys the laid back countryside lifestyle and even shows significant improvement in the academic performance. The novel is a joyful, refreshing and yet intriguing read and makes us question the various choices we, ultra urban people, are making everyday  in our lives.

Mantra (Chant) by Binayak Bandopadhyay (novel) published in Sharodiya Anandabazar Patrika: 

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Sparsha by Krishnendu Mukhopdhyay and Tarabhora Akasher Niche by Srijato from last year’s puja magazines set my expectation very high regarding contemporary Bengali literature, and this year’s novel Mantra by Binayak Bandopadhyay did not disappoint. Just like Sparsha  and Tarabhora Akasher Niche, Mantra  has a very global feel to it. The events in the novel aren’t restricted to the periphery of Bengal but spreads across the globe, with a majority of the latter events happening in US- mainly on east coast academic campuses. According to me, contemporary Bengali literature, and in extension, the people can be broadly classified into two types- one which is affected by globalization and the one which isn’t. Quite naturally the former type seems much more attractive to me than the latter. In Mantra, the protagonist Uttaran spends his childhood in an Ashram  in Calcutta in the company of Hindu saints and experiences a very spiritual upbringing. An extremely meritorious student, he goes to a top college in Calcutta for undergraduate training in Philosophy and then a top university in US for doctoral training in the same subject. But throughout this entire time he does not desert his monastic celibate lifestyle until a girl, Anasuya, who falls in love with him in Calcutta, follows him all the way to US to spend more time with him. The plot is pretty epic in its scope and takes several twists and turns after that as it follows the spiritual and academic trajectory of Uttaran- his giving up of celibacy and starting a family with Anasuya, raising a mute kid as a single parent, acquiring professional fame through his scholarly works on the Gita, and so on.

Uttaran’s internal struggle regarding the life choices he makes or circumstances force him to make is the central theme of the novel. He is shown to be torn apart internally several times, unable to make a confident choice between a monastic, spiritual, celibate life and a passionate, emotional, lustful family life. What I really liked about the novel that it adopts a very balanced and neutral approach and depicts the bright and dark sides of both these life choices. At a personal level, I largely agree with the writer on various points. If everybody in this world chooses to be a monk, this civilization will indeed cease to exist in a very short time. Sexuality is the driving force behind continuation of our species, and hence all the passion and emotional vulnerability that come with it need to be embraced rather than be shunned. Also, even if a monk chooses to live a family life driven by circumstances, they can always go back to their original lifestyle and can pursue spiritual advancement again in future.

I personally think that whether you are a monk or a family man, a celibate or a casanova, a musician or a clerk, you have to survive on this planet, find your own balance and live your life. So it really doesn’t matter much in the end. And death will strike upon everyone one time or the other, Even the most spiritually uplifted monks aren’t exempt from that. Yes, they can claim that our consciousness does not cease to exist. Extreme amount of dedication to spiritual practices in this life can lead to a much more peaceful after-life or something like that. The slight amount of subjectivity that always pervades our experience of the world we live in and our lack of understanding of the functioning of the brain certain leave space for such ideas, but based on personal experience, I can say that delving too much in such metaphysical ideas has quite a chance of bringing more suffering in life than happiness. Death is gonna come eventually to us all, and whether anything happens after death or not can be found out then. It’s far more enjoyable to enjoy this “real”, physical world we live in in all its diversity and derive pleasure from little things in life than obsessing oneself with abstract stuff like metaphysics and spirituality all the time. The protagonist Uttaran probably also feels the same several times during the course of the novel.

Overall, this novel is a great read. However one thing that probably makes it fall short of a classic unlike Sparsha and Tarabhora Akasher Niche is its weak narration style. I read Tarabhora Akasher Niche the second time very recently and it felt nearly as good as reading it the first time even though I knew the entire plot this time. This primarily happened because Srijato is one of the best Bengali poets of modern times and even the prose he writes reads like excellent poetry. The words resonated in my consciousness like some soulful melodies played on the sitar by some maestro. The places in which the events of the novel happen got beautifully projected in my mind as if I was sitting in front of a Vincent Van Gogh painting in an art gallery and relishing it alongside a cup of hot black coffee. Though this novel Mantra had plenty of scope of reaching that level of excellence since it dwelt upon spiritual life in India and academic life in the west, it quite failed to do so. Hardly any picture connected to Uttaran’s childhood or adult life gets painted in the eye of the mind while reading the novel. I kept turning the pages of this really long novel strictly because of the content. Hence, now that I have finished reading it once, I don’t think I will read it once again in near future.

Movies:

Manojder Adbhut Bari (Manoj’s strange house), directed by Anindya Chatterjee

This movie is adapted from the  critically acclaimed teenage fiction novel of the same name, written by prominent Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. The novel came out several decades ago and kicked off Shirshendu’s Adbhuture series – a series of teenage fiction novels full of comic and mystical elements in a village setting. This series, along with Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series and Sunil Ganguly’s Kakababu series, forms the cornerstone of Bengali teenage fiction. I have read almost all the novels in this series barring this one- “Manojder Adhbut Bari”. But all the novels in the series have pretty much the same setting and the same kind of characters – a king who isn’t much aware of his surroundings, an ever vigilent thief, bunch of hilarious dacoits, a saint or a local lunatic who makes mystic statements which sound like rambling initially but later turns out to be extremely insightful, some conservative old lady and a few curious kids. The plos are also fairly similar – there is a treasure hidden somewhere in the village, its existence is never mentioned in the early part of the story but only gets acknowledged towards the middle and then rest of the story is about finding that treasure. As a result, though I didn’t know the plot, I had a fair idea of what’s coming next when I sat at the theater to watch the movie.

Probably for that reason and also because the plot turned out to be quite weak compared to Shirshendu’s other novels in the series like “Pagla Saheber Kobor”, “Jhiler Dhare Bari” and “Harano Kakatuya”, I didn’t enjoy the movie much. I won’t say that in the movie the director failed to bring out the typical Shirshendu brand of humor that pervades all the novels of the series. Rather I felt he was quite able to bring it out, just that it has stopped working on me. I had a similar experience when I read the Shirshendu novel that came out in this year’s Anandamela and the last year’s. Probably because I have read too much of it- the same humor and characters have been repeated every year in the puja edition of Anandamela for the last several decades. Also the world we live in has changed too rapidly since the inception of this Adbhuture  series and Shirshendu’s Adbhuture world could not keep pace with it. As a result, I felt much more sad than irate after spending a huge chunk of money and time watching this movie on the day of its release- particularly when the author Shirshendu himself made a cameo towards the end of the movie and pretty much looked as old and obsolete as the world of his imagination.

Ek Je Chhilo Raja (There lived a king), directed by Srijit Mukherjee

These days Durga Puja has become incomplete without the release of a Srijit Mukherjee movie. So I had to check this one out- though I haven’t ever taken much interest in the famous Bhawal Sanyasi case or seen the Bengali classic movie “Sanyasi Raja”, based around it. In the beginning of “Ek Je Chhilo Raja”, Srijit makes the claim that his entire plot, barring the characters of the prosecution and defence lawyer,  is based on historical facts and events .  So it won’t be apt for me to critically review the movie without knowing all these historical facts. But, since I am quite interested in the history of Bengal and legal philosophy, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie with its historical references, intriguing courtroom drama, clash of ideas like feminism and patriotism, etc. The short conversation between the two lawyers, played by Aparna Sen and Anjan Dutt, was the most brilliant part of the movie for me. Sen’s  dismissal of patriotism as an emotion centered around an abstract concept based  building borders on a map echoes similar ideas that I had nurtured before but do not entertain much these days. Yes, a nation is an abstract concept based on borders drawn on a map, but those borders drawn on the map are quite related to distinct features in the physical world like mountains and seas. People who lived on different sides of a mountain or a sea hardly interacted across the ages and hence formed their own cultures and thereby their own countries. So patriotism is not that abstract a sentiment as some intellectuals portray it to be.

Another thing I really liked about the movie is there is no clear right and wrong in the story, just like in any mature drama. Both the prosecution and defense side think they have the higher moral ground. The conflict among laws of the physical world, laws institutionalized by humans to govern society and  laws of the metaphysical or divine world, if anything like that at all exists, has interested me a lot over the years and this movie brings out that conflict beautifully towards the end. Overall, Srijit Mukherjee has made a brilliant movie once again and it shouldn’t be missed.

Using “Maharajo Eki Saje”, sung by favorite contemporary Rabindrasangeet singer Sahana Bajpayee, in the soundtrack made me even more happy about the movie, though the entire song seems to be lifted from her album “Ja Bolo Tai Bolo” that came out a few years ago as opposed to being reproduced specifically for the film.

Pandals / Street Art:

Here are some pictures from the puja pandals I visited this year. Much like the previous time, I only saw a few pandals in south Calcutta (Jodhpur Park- Tollygunge- Behala area) and some in North Calcutta (Hatibagan- Shovabazar area) this time. Here are the pictures from the very best of them.

 

Barisha Sarbojonin takes the city dwellers on a trip to the Anadamans, right among the Jarawas.

 

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Dazzling orange-hued pandal and idol of the goddess in Shibmandir Sarbojonin- brick has been used as the main component of their pandal decorations.

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Gorgeous interiors of old zamindar houses in puja pandals of Kasi Bose Lane and Ahiritola Sarbojonin

The old zamindar house atmosphere nicely emulated by Kasi Bose Lane Durga Puja Committee and Ahiritola Sarbojonin is present quite in its original form at Shovabazaar Rajbari.

The divine female, unarmed, rests in all her tranquility along with a repentant Mahisashura in an other worldly pandal made by Hatibagan Sarbojonin

 

That’s all from this year’s puja. Aschhe bochhor abar hobe.

Cricket

My dream cricket XI (1996-2007)

I watched cricket very seriously in the entire period between the World Cup of 1996 and the World Cup of 2007, and after that stopped watching it altogether. Lack of cable television wherever I lived after 2007 was one of the reasons. People who lived around me in those places weren’t much interested in the game either, which was another reason for my drop in interest in cricket. Also it is probably not a coincidence that India-England test series in 1996 marked the arrival of my hometown hero, Sourav Ganguly, in test cricket and World Cup 2007 was the large major ODI tournament he played.

As I moved back to India in 2017 and got a cable TV in my house cricket got back to my life once again and made me reminiscence those glorious days of test and ODI cricket with the Tendulkar-s and the Lara-s and the Shane Warne-s. So here are my dream test and ODI XI, only picking players who dominated cricket during that period. Again, I never understood the technicalities of the game that well and so my teams may not be optimised with the right combinations for the best performance. It’s rather made from the heart largely to recount the amazing moments those cricketers gave us to cherish. As a result, performance in big matches like World Cup matches and some crucial Test series matches has played more importance in selection of the team than average, technique, etc.

Dream Test XI:

1. Mathew Hayden

2. Virender Sehwag

I have found it harder to choose the openers than the middle order batsmen because  unlike the four middle order batsmen that follow in the list these two batsmen came to prominence towards the later part of the period I picked up here. Still, these two batsmen completely dominated that later period with their explosive batting, consistent performance and most importantly their triple tons. So I can’t leave out either of them.

3. Jack Kallis

4. Sachin Tendulkar

5. Ricky Ponting

6. Brian Lara

Jack Kallis is there at no. 3 to anchor the innings. Rahul Dravid could have been another option, but Jack Kallis could also bowl. That has given him an edge over Rahul Dravid to get into the squad. Making a dream XI like this always makes you sad in the end because of the players you have to exclude. In my case, the fact that Dravid is not included in my dream test XI really makes me sad. Also, V.V.S Laxman for that matter!

The batsmen at no. 4,5 and 6 were the three batsmen of that era, so it is impossible to drop any of them.

7. Adam Glichrist

The man you first think of when you think of a wicketkeeper- batsman in the pre- Dhoni and pre- Sangakara era! He single handedly changed the role of no. 7 batsman in the squad in test cricket.

8. Wasim Akram

9. Glen Mc Grath

10. Allan Donald   (Anil Kumble or Muthaiah Muralidhan on a subcontinent track)

11. Shane Warne

Wasim Akram and Glen McGrath make it to pretty much anybody’s dream XI, so those are obvious choices. For the third fast bowler, I have to go with Allan Donald, thanks to the amazing memories I have of India’s tour of South Africa in 1996-97. That face smeared with white cream, that gentle and yet sinister run up and smooth delivery style which all of us tried to imitate in gali cricket, and that menacing speed at which the ball came towards the batsmen – Allan Donald is my personal favorite and has to be in the squad! For the only spinner, I will go with Shane Warne just like most other people will. He had been the very definition of spin bowling in that era. In case it’s a subcontinent spinning track, I will drop Donald and pick Anil Kumble or Muthaiah Muralidharan in his place.

Captain: Wasim Akram

He is probably the most senior player in the team and  has been really well respected throughout his career. He should lead the team.

Dream ODI XI:

I have found making the dream ODI XI list much harder than the test XI. All the dominant teams of that era- India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa- could contribute 5-6 players each to this team. As a result I have made some hard choices- some of them quite unorthodox. Here is my list.  I go with the combination of 4 batsmen, 4 bowlers,  2 all rounders and 1 wicketkeeper-batsman.

1. Adam Gilchrist

2. Sachin Tendulkar

Since I am going with 4 batsmen, I couldn’t pick Sanath Jayasurya or Sourav Ganguly in Glicrist’s spot though I would have really wanted to. Choosing the other opener here is a no brainer.

3. Ricky Ponting

4. Jack Kallis (all rounder)

5. Aravinda DeSilva

6. Michael Bevan

7. Lance Klusener (all rounder)

Ricky Ponting at no. 3 is probably a no brainer. Jack Kallis is there at no. 4 to anchor the innings- plus he had been excellent with the ball in limited overs cricket. I choose Aravinda DeSilva at no. 5 instead of Steve Waugh or Mohammad Azharduddin because of the two consecutive ODI centuries he scored in the semi-final and final of the 1996 World Cup. Michael Bevan was the best finisher in ODI cricket before MS Dhoni arrived in the scene, so his position at no. 6 of my squad probably cannot be questioned.

Lance Klusener at no. 7 is probably an unorthodox choice but again I have given a lot of importance to big match performance and personal memories here. 1999 World Cup- need I say more? With respect to cricket, that guy probably gave me the most excitement and also the biggest heartbreak! Those two boundaries smashed through mid-off, followed by a dot ball and that “fatal” attempt to take a single- I don’t think I can ever watch a replay of that over in my life! A couple of decades has passed since then which included almost a decade for me away from cricket and yet it remains as a painful memory which I never want to go back to. So my dream XI will be incomplete without him.

8. Wasim Akram

9. Glen McGrath

10. Shawn Pollock

11. Shane Warne

The bowlers in my ODI XI are pretty much the same as that in my test XI, just that in place of Allan Donald I choose his fellow teammate Shawn Pollock in the shorter format of the game.

Captain: Wasim Akram

12th man: Jonty Rhodes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calcutta Corner

Recurring imagery in Anjan Dutta’s music

After writing a few really cerebral posts which are so typical of my blog (the last one was particularly dark), I felt like writing something light and fun. So I chose something which is much closer to my heart than my mind- the music of good old Anjan Dutta, somebody who Bengalis both love and hate. His songs like “Mary Ann”, “Bela Bose” and “Mr Hall”  became a mainstay of urban college music scene in Bengal in the early 90-s. In the new millennium, just when people thought his popularity had faded and the themes of his songs- guitar, Darjeeling, cigarette and teenage love- had grown stale, he rekindled the enthusiasm about his music in people by making movies around his songs. Movies like “Madly Bengali”, “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbo Na”  and “Aami Ashbo Phirey” that released in the 2010s were essentially celebrations of the music he made as a singer- songwriter a couple of decades back.

As I said, along with multitudes of fans, he has plenty of detractors particularly among members of the older generation, who probably cannot relate to his anglophilia, his free flowing hipster lifestyle and his obsession with cigarettes, alcohol and western country and folk music. The fact that his songs are not musically rich and are quite simply glorified poems is another popular allegation against him.  I defended him on numerous occasions in debates with elders, as well as some friends, and went to the length of saying that he is a better songwriter than Rabindranath Tagore. After exploring Tagore’s music much more in the recent years, I don’t think I can make that claim any more but I still see where my argument came from. Tagore’s lyrics is mostly abstract, he seeks some form of divinity in everything that he sees around him – clouds, rivers, flowers, meadows- and finds a sense of tranquility in them. On the other hand, Anjan Dutta’s lyrics is highly grounded in “reality”- he talks about the daily commute in the crowded buses of Calcutta, the lonely saxophone player in a five star hotel, two tiny rooms under the staircase with the plaster fading off the walls- the list goes on. Even when his imagery shifts from the crowded urban landscape to the serenity of the hills, he is still very “real” – the railing overlooking the steep slope, the yellow fingers of the piano teacher moving over the keys of the piano, etc. So in a way the contrast between Anjan Dutta’s lyrics and Tagore’s lyrics perfectly encapsulates the central theme of my blog- the real versus the abstract.

Okay, I again deviated from my promise of not making this post cerebral like my other posts. So let’s get back on track- I am simply gonna describe some of the recurrent imageries in Anjan Dutta’s music over the years and have a lot of fun in the process. I am not describing the most talked about ones here- everyone is well aware of his obsession with Park Street, Darjeeling, Anglo Indians, cigarette, guitar and Bob Dylan.  This post is about the less discussed ones, but strangely these images have repeated in a lot of his songs, starting from the early 90s to the late 2010s.

Buttonless Shirt- Why exactly is he so obsessed with a buttonless shirt? Probably to him it’s symbolic of a free flowing lifestyle, but since he has talked about it in multiple songs, for example. “Ache beporoya botam bihin shirt” from the song “Tobu Jodi Tumi” in the movie “Dutta vs Dutta” or  “Botam bihin shirt ta amar chhoto keno hoy” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”, one has to wonder what is this fetish with buttonless shirts really about. In fact what exactly is a buttonless shirt? Does a simple round neck T-shirt count as buttonless? For sure it doesn’t have a button. Or does he simply want to the convey the idea of wearing a shirt without buttoning it up? In fact he posed himself like that too often in the movie “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona”, so probably that’s what it is.

Poor kids living on the streets of Calcutta, bathing under the roadside municipal taps – “Tobu-o neche uthey abar rashtar kol, Nachte nachte chaan kore jaay, rashtar cheler dool” from the song “Sokal” in his recent movie “Ami Ashbo Phirey” invokes quite similar images in my head as “Tumi dekhechho ki Hatujole 1 Loyd Street-tumi dekhechho ki borshay….sei langta chheletar hashi” from the song “Tumi Dekhechho ki”, composed in the 90s. All jokes apart, this imagery is really touching just like most of his other imagery and speaks volumes about his lyrical genius.

Japan- Anjan Dutta has some weird obsession about Japan. Sure, he considers his music to be international and it indeed is, and he often tries to transcend all political and cultural barriers with his lyrics and music. So he frequently talks about other countries in his songs, but he talks about Japan a bit too often- and the references to Japan are pretty arbitrary and almost have no context whatsoever. For example, he repeats the phrase “Ke Hindu Ke Japani” in the songs – “Que Sara Ra Ra” from the movie “Ganesh Talkies” and “Ami Ashbo Phirey” from the movie with the same name.Then again a couple of decades ago in the song “Aamar Janala” he wrote- “Keu janala khule Alabamay bangla gaan i gay, Keu porchhe Koran boshe tar Japani janalay”. Interestingly, he followed up the imagery of singing Bengali songs in Alabama and reading the Quran in Japan with that of playing guitar in Mexico. Probably back then he didn’t have much access to the internet just like the rest of us and wasn’t aware of the fact that the image of someone playing guitar in Mexico did not really break any cultural stereotype and promote a sense of internationalism unlike the previous two images- in fact playing the guitar was probably a very common thing in Mexico and still is.

 

Getting up early in the morning and watching the sunrise- Along with internationalism, the pain of growing up and missing one’s childhood is a dominant theme of Anjan Dutta’s lyrics. And he depicts it really well through his imagery, thereby making his songs one of the closest things to my heart. And just like he refers to Japan often to promote internationalism, he talks about not getting up early in the morning any more to watch the sun rise whenever he misses his childhood- for example, the lines “Bhorbela ar lukie dekha hoy na, Surjodoy dei je faki”  from the song “Koto ki korar chhilo re” in “Madly Bengali”  or the lines “Bhor bela te bhor bela amar Dekha hoye othey na je aar
Ke jaane ki karone” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”.

 

There are many other such recurring images in the lyrics of his songs, which together build up the world of Anjan Dutta- a world which I have always relied upon to provide me with support in moments of pain and with excitement in moments of joy. Most importantly in moments when I have got lost in some abstract world and felt detached from this world we live in, only to feel scared subsequently, his music provided me with the perfect “grounding”- something I badly needed. It reminded me of and made me embrace again my roots, my passions and my identity which I had tried to transcend with all the other worldly spiritual stuff, a journey which ended up being scary in the end.

 

Lastly, yes, the themes and images of his songs and also his movies are repetitive, and a lot of people I know have voiced their dislike for him because of that, but this is what I have always said in his defence- he is not a mainstream playback singer who sings songs written by other people like a machine- some being about romance, some about patriotism, some about friendship and so on. Instead, he writes his own lyrics and he writes them from within. As a result, since he is just one individual and has had a limited set of experiences, his songs and movies are bound to be repetitive. And that is probably the case with any original artist of modern times in any domain of art unless the name of the artist is Satyajit Ray.

 

 

 

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Why not trip over death or try kill oneself

Over last Fall and Spring, I had scribbled down on my notebook several reasons why one should not obsess over the idea of death, or worse, actually try out some self destructive physical act as a result of the obsession. I wrote them down as and when these reasons occurred to me. An important thing I wanted to clarify here is that these reasons are mainly applicable to people who contemplate suicide mainly out of an obsession with the idea of death and what happens to someone after death, and not to people who contemplate suicide to terminate the mental pain or escape from the difficult situation they are in. The latter is considered to be the main reason for suicide- a person is in immense emotional pain all the time and cannot take it any more, so they kill themselves. But as experience has taught me, one can have self destructive thoughts simply out of isolation or too much pondering over philosophical issues. They can get so immersed in their own mental/ abstract world that they keep questioning whether the physical world they live in and share with others is real or whether it is simply an illusion. After that at some point, they start toying with the idea of death too much because to them death, being quite absolute in nature, opens up the possibility of experiencing some kind of absolute reality.

Here I have listed some arguments I have come up with over time which one can use to avoid having such weird “trip”-s about death and thereby getting into a self destructive spiral.

  1. Death is inevitable. It will happen to everyone. Obsession about something makes sense if the probability of that thing happening is pretty low, e.g. publishing a research paper in a high Impact Factor journal, writing a best seller novel, winning the Nobel Prize, leading Indian cricket team to a victory at the World Cup, etc. Based on past record death is an absolute certainty, so why obsess over something that will happen anyway?
  2. All these philosophies, poetry, music etc. hint at the existence of a beautiful ideal world beyond this physical world, but there is really no guarantee that such a world exists. Also if it exists, with death it will appear anyway and death will happen eventually. So why rush it? Death is irreversible, so don’t toy with it. Let it happen in its due course. 
  3. This world with mountains, rivers, cities, friends and family is pretty intricate, intriguing and awesome. Even if the whole thing is a simulation, as it often appears with isolation and too much “deep thinking”, let it be a simulation. We have always been in this simulation but probably never noticed it before because it is a wonderfully intricately designed one anyway. For example, when we were having fun in high school or college, when did we ever think that the world around us could be a self consistent simulation?  It’s only recently as we have experienced the life more and more and patterns have started to repeat that we have started bringing up these questions. It doesn’t really matter if the world around is a simulation or real because as long as everything is consistent, which has always been the case minus some fringe elements, our experience of the world remains the same either way. Also, eve if it’s all a simulation, what is the reason to want to end the simulation abruptly through death? That thought didn’t occur so far even though we had always been inside the simulation.
  4. Love holds the world together. This world may be a simulation but our near and dear ones really love us and they will be devastated if something happens to us. So never never contemplate death. Explore all your passions and stay obsessed with them. Stay distracted!
  5. The fundamental purpose of existence is to eat and reproduce. That’s how evolution works . The spiritual framework rejects this idea and tries to find a higher purpose for existence. So in that sense a spiritual journey is anti-evolutionary. Probably that’s why it’s extremely demanding to go on the spiritual path. So better not to take it too seriously and get guided by evolution and chill out!
  6. Spending too much time insolation and questioning what is the purpose of life doesn’t make much sense because we didn’t start from such an ideal situation in the first place. We spent first twenty years of our lives with family and friends and never asked ourselves what was the purpose of life. But then when we started living by ourselves and experienced more solitude, this question started arising in our minds. Since we got entangled in a non ideal world to begin with why ask idealist questions now!! Just continue with the non idealities, spend life the way you spent your initial years. Stay connected to the “real world” one way or the other.
  7. Isolation and loneliness lets the subjective aspect of our consciousness, as described by philosopher David Chalmers while formulating the “hard problem of consciousness”, grow and hence outsude world feels like simulation because of too much mental activity inside and too little physical activity outside. Don’t spend too much time alone!
  8. Don’t even try to act like you are doing things close to what can hurt you. Brain is a pattern forming machine. It has somehow related those things that gave you “death trips” with death and your OCD further makes you want do these things or act like doing them. Don’t respond to it at all.
  9. There is no absolute reality at least the living cannot experience it. A subjective feeling of consciousness always pervades our perception of reality, which is a calibration  of current signal to some previous signal already existing in the brain as memory. May be at the moment of our death we will perceive absolute reality, but we may not as well. Anyway death is an eventuality, so at that moment of dying the idea can  be tested anyway. No need to rush it.
    Also probably if someone loses all memory whatsoever or feels a sense of detachment from all memory, the latter can happen out of isolation and prolonged lack of interest in worldly things, they can perceive something very close to absolute reality but the experience is much more scary than fun. There is perhaps no need to revisit it again. Instead of trying to detach oneself from memories and try to live “in the moment” without relating the present with your past and future, it is a much better idea according to me to make new memories and experience the world around in the light of those memories. Your memories are what you are, they are your identity. This idea that memory is painful and one should get rid of their ego by transcending these memories and experience life only by living in the present is often preached in the spirituality domain of human knowledge. However from personal experience this idea, though can be an immense source of bliss in the initial days, eventually alienates one from their surroundings, makes them very lonely inside and leads to existential crisis. In the name of losing your ego you may lose your identity, don’t do that!
  10. If we study human evolution in this planet, we will observe that forming groups has made man survive and eventually outclass all other animals. Forming group has been our biggest strength. Thus evolution has made man a social animal. We need each others’ support to live. There may be outliers to this but majority want to live in society with company and not feel alone. So many things are missing when alone like love and humor, which are essential to our existence. So we must live together, not alone. Even human consciousness is collective end of the day. The language in which we think, the manner in which we talk, our hand gestures are all products of our upbringing in the society. Living alone suddenly makes you question all those things about yourself which you had taken for granted so long because the collective nature of your consciousness starts disappearing slowly. Is it an experience really worth having?
  11. Assuming the realist/ materialist view point of life is correct, this world exists the way it is whether we live or die. But again this world is us in the end. Our job is to live this world and people there in and learn as much and make memories and then impact the world so that we live in this world through our memories after we die. death is gonna happen anyway . Question is what do we do to impact this world before we die.
  12.  As long as train of thoughts leads you from one idea to another without raising any question mark / existential crisis / suicidal thought you are fine. Just keep loving this world. Another thing that one needs to be careful about is obsessive thought in general. Even if it’s not about death, even if it’s about something else, always thinking about it means you are indulging in it too much. Indulging in something is fine, if you don’t indulge in the world then you start feeling detached from everything and all the death trip starts as explained previously, but if you indulge in something too much that can lead to a lot of pain later and then again to avoid the pain you will get into the detachment path and the cycle will repeat. Best way to proceed is probably to balance it all out, indulge but don’t indulge too much, be practical and yet be spiritual, be spiritual and yet be practical!
  13. According to the concept of arrow of time, time moves only in the forward direction. However an interesting thing I realised in that context is that though in the physical world things can get created or destroyed, in the mental world things only get created. Any thought that has occurred to a man lives on through the memories of the man in the others’ minds, the books he / she writes or the work he/ she does. Sometimes memories go latent but they are always there. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote in the poem “Hothat Dekha” (A sudden meeting) – Raater sob tara thake diner aalor gobhire (All stars of the night stay hidden in the depth of the sunlight during the day). Right circumstances bring back the latent memories. Hence always stay in touch with the world and through that stay in touch with your memories. Love the world and its people, and contribute more to this world through your work. This way you add more to the world. Things only accumulate in mental world, nothing gets destroyed. Keep adding stuff.

Most importantly try to adopt a middle ground whenever there are  contradictory ideas, don’t take any idea to the extreme and do chill out!

Fantasy

Alchemy, equivalent exchange and karma, Professor Shanku and Full Metal Alchemist

Though I have taken a lot of interest in metaphysical stuff over the years and dedicated large chunks of this blog to discussions on that, I never took much interest in alchemy perhaps because of my natural lack of inclination towards chemistry. I read Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shanku story “Shankur Suborno Sujog” (Shonku’s Golden Opportunity) very recently but didn’t really look up on alchemy after that. Well, Satyajit Ray based his science fiction stories on a lot of stuff- from time travel to unicorns, from witchcraft to artificial intelligence, so why bother? Also to be honest as much as I respect Satyajit Ray for all the amazing movies he made and the fictional sleuth he created- Feluda, who was a large part of my childhood, I never was a big fan of his Professor Shanku stories. As a kid, I didn’t understand or appreciate them much, and as an adult I felt them to be too childish. Satyajit Ray was an artistic genius and probably had a lot of curiosity about science too, but in my opinion that is not enough to write good science fiction. One actually needs to know a little bit of science so that the story has enough details to appear realistic even though it is fantasy. Satyajit Ray probably lacked the knowledge of science to fill up his stories with sound details. As a result most of the Shanku stories, despite providing a good read, are hardly memorable- Shanku owns a gun which makes any object in front of it vanish when fired, he makes a machine which can translate the language of ants, he makes some object which can float in air to defy gravity. Sure this is science fiction and not science and so I am ready to suspend my disbelief, but provide me with the details of how these things happen for science’s sake!

Okay enough of Satyajit Ray bashing, now back to alchemy! In the story “Shanku’s Suborno Sujog”, Professor Shanku and his two other friends, both scientists like him, try to reproduce the experiment to transform other objects to gold that has been reported in a Spanish diary from medieval Europe, when the study of alchemy had its heyday. They keep putting different objects in a well of some liquid that they prepare as a part of the experiment but to their dismay nothing turns into gold until the villain of the story accidentally jumps into it and his entire body is turned into gold. The scientists realize that the transformation to gold demands life and hence it works only for living objects.

I read this story and pretty much forgot about it until recently when I started watching the massively popular anime- “Full Metal Alchemist”- the 2003 version. I finished all its episodes in the last one month, and also watched the sequel movie- “Conqueror of Shamballa”. The series made me look up on alchemy and understand the basics of the different concepts in alchemy that have been highlighted in the show- transmutation, transmutation circle, law of equivalent exchange, gate of truth, philosopher’s stone etc. Most of the information available on the internet about these concepts is based on the TV series and the manga it is based on, so I am not very sure how many of these concepts are borrowed from actual annals on alchemy written over the ages, and how many have been concocted for the sake of the manga. Nevertheless, I will discuss some of the concepts over here and relate them with other things that have interested me in the past.

The law of equivalent exchange is the fundamental law of alchemy- for everything gained in the world, something of equal value must be lost, though the series never explicitly lays out what parameters determine equal value. Some examples are shown instead- the protagonists, Ed and Al, try to bring their dead mother back to life but Ed loses his arm and leg and Al loses his entire body, the teacher Izumi loses organs inside her belly in the attempt to regain her lost child, umpteen human lives need to be sacrificed to create the philosopher’s stone and so on. The idea is indeed similar to that in Professor Shanku’s story – only living objects can be transmuted to gold, i.e., creation of gold comes at the cost of sacrifice of a life.

In the series, Ed and Al’s understanding of the law of equivalent exchange evolves over time. When they are young and innocent, they take the law as absolute truth. As they grow older and have several life changing experiences in their pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, and particularly after an altercation with the antagonist, Dante, at  the climax of the story, their absolute belief in the law seems to erode. Dante passionately argues that the law of equivalent exchange is a theory that has been concocted to delude innocent minds. The world is cruel, random and unfair. Good things happen to some people and bad things to the others for no reason whatsoever. By the end of the series, Al concedes that he no longer considers equivalent exchange an absolute law. He rather interprets it as a promise- a ray of hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that someday he will reunite with his brother Ed.

I find this theory of equivalent exchange very similar to the theory of karma in ancient philosophy. According to the theory of karma, everything in this world happens for a reason. Events that are separated by vast expanses of space and long passages of time are actually connected by strings, invisible to us. Though this idea seemed implausible to me initially, experiences in life have taught me otherwise. As I have mentioned in some of my other posts, there is always a subjective aspect to consciousness which will keep our understanding of the world around us grey forever. Once someone is isolated enough or is deeply in pain due to a heartbreak or is obsessed with metaphysical ideas over a long period of time, their mind works in ways like it does never before. The mind starts making long range connections and relating events with each other, which it always considered uncorrelated before. It is not impossible that an individual, possessed with such a mental state, will be afraid crossing the road because a car can run him over for the way he mistreated his girlfriend six months back.

I do not think we can ever be sure whether our world is so causal, correlated and deterministic as the karma theory considers it to be. This world might as well be completely random and unfair, or it can be somewhere in between – some things happen for a reason and some other things just happen randomly. However what I do believe is that every individual should have the right to choose their own view of the world. And just like Al chooses to believe in equivalent exchange since it instills hope in him, I also choose to believe in karma but not take it as an absolute because that way I take everything I do and everything that happens to me way too seriously. I find it difficult to do simple things in everyday life, which always involve a little risk, if my mind is haunted with the thought that they may have severe consequences as a result of something I did wrong ages ago.

Another interesting concept in the series which I find worth discussing is the concept of the Gate of Truth. In the 2003 TV series “Full Metal Alchemist”, the Gate is presented as a portal between two worlds. One of the worlds is the world we live in, where modern science is dominated by physics and its derivatives and alchemy has no power, and the other world is that of Ed and Al’s- the state of Amestris, where alchemy is considered the most superior science. Majority of the episodes in the series is set in the latter world, with the former appearing in the last few episodes of the series and the sequel movie.

Essentially in our world, practice of alchemy was not that uncommon even a few centuries ago. Attempts were made in different parts of the world, particularly in Europe at the later stage, to transmute different substances to gold, develop panaceas that can cure all diseases and create the philosopher’s stone. However in the post Renaissance era, with the widespread success of physics, attempts were made to rigorously quantify and record the various practices in alchemy, and to separate the procedures performed on various substances as a part of alchemy from the spiritual practices connected to it like the purification of soul and grant of eternal life. Thus refined versions of age old practices in alchemy, with the metaphysical connotations stripped off them, became what we call “chemistry” today, while alchemy got the status of an outdated, occult branch of knowledge. The series Full Metal Alchemist and the manga behind it essentially imagine a world which has a very similar history as ours, just that alchemy does not fall from grace there and physics and chemistry do not take its place. The protagonists Ed and Al and most of the other characters belong to that world. In the series, that world of alchemy is separated from our world by the Gate of Truth- an idea very similar to the central theme of my blog- bridge between the physical world and the abstract world.

A few things about the characters and storyline in the series need to be mentioned before I end the post. The expressiveness on Ed’s face at every close up shot is simply mesmerising. The artists deserve a huge credit for that. That, alongside the innocent conviction in Al’s voice every time he states his intentions or opinions, will stay with me for a long time. I also found the use of comic elements at different points in the show, even in the serious situations, extremely innovative and refreshing. Ed going berserk every time he is called short and Al holding him back screaming “brother” innocently never gets old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philosophy · Short stories

Divine love and neural engineering

It was about 8 PM in the evening. Done with his work in the laboratory for the day, Ary was packing up his stuff and getting ready to leave. He had completed four years of his PhD and had already finished majority of his thesis work. Thus he didn’t really have a lot of work to do in the laboratory of late.

The phone inside the pocket of his jeans suddenly started vibrating. He usually kept his phone on silent mode with no vibration on to avoid being disturbed in the middle of some engagement. As a result he missed all his incoming calls, much to the agony of his friends and colleagues. In fact he had almost forgotten the experience of picking up an incoming call. Usually he would look at his mobile phone once in an hour or so, check the call log and call back the people who had tried to contact him in the last one or two hours if they were important enough to him. But that day by mistake he had put his phone on vibration mode.

He pulled the phone out of the his jeans’ pocket. The call was coming from some unknown, but local number. Reluctantly he picked up the call. It was an old lady’s voice on the other end. The accent was American, most probably Californian. Interestingly his fellow American friends identified that as having no accent.

“Am I speaking to Aranyak Sen?”, the lady asked.

“Yes”, Ary replied.

There was a second’s pause. Then she said, “Your friend Poulomi Chatterji met with an accident. She is bleeding profusely. May have broken some bones too. She is getting transferred to a trauma center in Castro Valley. She has listed you as her emergency contact person and gave us your phone number.”

Ary didn’t know how to respond. It was a weird feeling. There was shock and grief, but surpassing all that he experienced a strange feeling which several times he attempted to recall later and describe in words not only to communicate it to someone else but also for his own understanding. But he always failed to do so. It felt like memories of day to day events that happened about him and their associated emotions were only residing on the surface of his brain. This news had pierced through all that and hit the core of his brain, as if he was waiting for this moment for years. So far all that happened to him was trivial. This was the moment when his actual life began.

“How did the accident happen?”, Ary asked.

“She fell off a cliff near Muir Woods. She was hiking by herself. Some other hikers found her lying senseless and called 911. The paramedics gave her first aid and took her to a local hospital to realize that she was suffering from internal bleeding and that it was a medical emergency. So she was rushed to the biggest trauma center around, in Castro Valley.”

“Okay, please tell me the address of the trauma center, and where in that hospital I can find her. I am driving there right away.”

After ending the phone call, Ary signed in to the rental car application on his phone, rented a car for the night which was parked very close to their office building and left his laboratory in the direction of the parking lot. Why on earth would Polo go for a hike to Muir woods on a working day? And yes sure, it was summer and the sun didn’t set until almost 8 PM but still why would she be out in the hills that late? Ary had noticed that Polo was getting more weird and crazy every passing day, but this was probably too much.

When he reached the parking lot, he was quickly able to locate the car. It was a white Hyundai Santro. It was always parked at this lot for people to rent it on an hourly basis, and so many times Ary too had rented it before to practice driving on freeways. Most of the times he was accompanied by Polo. She grew up in Singapore where public transport was very convenient. It was also very expensive to own a car. Hence her parents never owned a car. Yet she learned driving in Singapore through a driving school. When she moved to the bay area a couple of years back for her PhD she got her California driving license immediately and started driving around the bay area frequently. On the other hand, Ary had been in the bay area for four years now but only got his license a year back. Despite passing the driving test to get his license, he still wasn’t very confident about driving on freeways at 80 miles per hour. So he often rented that specific Hyundai Santro car after a day’s work, asked the more experienced Polo to join him and went straight on the freeway just to get used to that speed of traffic. Sitting in the passenger’s seat, Polo wasn’t really the conventional instructor. She didn’t give her continuous instructions on how to drive. In fact she rarely said anything. Often she would even have her eyers closed. But Ary knew that this entire time, Polo was making sure they were safe.

On the first such driving session with Polo, Ary took the car out of the parking lot and drove it along University Avenue, which ran westward from UC Berkeley campus, tearing through the heart of the city, all the way to the bridge that connected it with Interstate 880 freeway that ran between south bay and east bay. As they approached that bridge, Ary felt a little nervous and unsure. He asked Polo, “Hey, what happens at this bridge? I can’t recall. Does it straight join 880?”. But her eyes were closed and she didn’t respond. Ary asked the same question again. Then she slowly responded, “no, the road goes upward and upward and then it joins the sky”.

All these memories were flooding Ary’s mind as he was driving at 80 miles per hour on Freeway 880 to reach the trauma center at Castro Valley. It was past the evening rush hours, so the lanes were relatively empty. He kept wondering about the state he was going to find Polo in at the hospital. Would she be in a lot of pain? Would she be able to identify him? Ary had no clue.

Calcutta Corner · Poetry

Banalata Sen: Adaptation of selected poetry of one the most iconic Bengali poets- Jibanananda Das

Jibanananda Das is widely considered to be the greatest Bengali poet of the post Rabindranath Tagore era. Poetry books like “Rupasi Bangla”, “Dhushar Pandulipi” and “Banalata Sen”, which are essentially sincerest meditations on nature, feminine beauty, history, geography, life and death, have made him a common name in the Bengali household.

Here I have tried to adapt five of my favorite poems from his book “Banalata Sen” in English. I did not translate these poems word by word from Bengali to English since I believe that in such a manner it is very hard to reproduce the beautiful imagery of rural Bengal or that of far distant lands like Vidisha or Babylon that the poet created in the original poems, as his mind raced through both space and time in all its lonesomeness. Instead I have rewritten the same poems in my own way in English, trying to stay as close to the themes and imageries of the original poems as possible.

Please give them a read, irrespective of whether you are aware of the original Bengali poems or not. These five poems build on one another, so it’s probably a good idea to read all of them at one go, may be following the sequence in which they appear here.

 

 

Banalata Sen from Natore

 

A thousand years I’ve trodden paths on the face of the earth,

The seas of Ceylon and Malay I’ve voyaged through misery and mirth.

From Bimbisar and Ashoka’s fading city

Through endless streets of ancient darkness

Among even further away Vidarbha’s men,

Countless sojourns have made me listless

Until I found a moment of tranquility

In the soulful eyes of Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

Darkness of her hair reminded me of nights forlorn

In the city of Vidisha of long lost times. Sculptures that adorn

The temples of Shravasti inspired her countenance.

After a long lost voyage the way a sailor

Eyes a verdurous isle amidst the azure ocean,

Ohh I did see her with the same ardor

“Where wert thou all these days?”, asked she softly with a glance,

Tranquil as a bird’s nest, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

End of the day like the dewdrop’s sound descends the eve’s veil,

Smell of the sun on the kite’s gorgeous wings grows pale.

As the last hues on earth fade into blackness eternal,

And sounds of sentience drown into slumber deep,

All birds return to the nest, all beasts to the den,

So do all brooks, all streams. All blossoms do sleep.

All that’s left behind is darkness abysmal

And reposed in front, pining for love, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

A Windy Night

 

Last night was a windy night,

And a night of a thousand stars.

Scattered winds played with my mosquito net all night,

Swelling its bosom like the heart of a boisterous sea,

Making it long to escape the bed and fly into the stars.

Indeed, at times, half-asleep,

I felt like the mosquito net escaped from over my head

And set itself afloat in the turbulence of the winds, amidst all the azure-ness,

Like a white dove.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

All the dead stars were resurrected last night.

I sighted the fading countenance of my favorite dead amidst them.

They were effulgent like the eyes of a lover kite on a dark tree top,

Eyes moistened by dew drops,

Resplendent like the leopard skin, the queen of far distant Babylon

Used to drape about her bosom.

Such was the splendor of last night.

 

All the beauties, I witnessed whom dying in Assyria, Egypt and Vidisha,

were resurrected last night.

I sighted them thronging the foggy horizon,

Holding tridents in their hands, determined

To trample death under their feet,

To celebrate the triumph of life,

To erect the menacing tower of love.

Terrified was I, last night’s turmoil tore me from within.

Within the tirelessly flapping wings of the azure sky

Faded time- like a tiny earthly insect.

Such was the tremor of last night.

 

Wind raced in through my windows last night,

Fierce as a herd of zebras running frantically

Through the lush green meadows,

Terror-stricken by the menacing roar of the lion.

My heart reverberated in joy

Intoxicated by the smell of the wilderness,

By the excitement of the darkness that roared within me,

Like a lustful tigress, ecstatic in her union with her lover.

I felt like my heart escaped this earth,

And set itself afloat like an inebriated balloon in the turbulence of the winds,

And sailed through the distant stars amidst all the azure-ness

Like a swift vulture.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

 

A couple of decades later

 

A couple of decades later what if our paths again cross

Far beyond this city that gathers our generation’s moss;

Back in the pleasant countryside where our roots are entrenched deep,

In autumn by a granary with harvest the peasants did reap.

 

When kites, golden in the setting sun, journey homeward bound

And the pall of eve descends on meadows like the dewdrop’s sound,

When the moon moves soft behind the forest boughs in her regal grace

With leaves pitch black and branches specter thin silhouetted against her milky face,

 

When the lonesome owl, hiding from a tree top, at the village path does stare,

And strands of hay, from the ducks’ nests, from the crows’ nests, waft in the air,

When indolence prevails over the paddy fields stretched wide,

In this meadowy path I’ve found you again by my side.

 

After twenty years moving about the city swept by life’s tide,

In this pastoral land I’ve found you again by my side.

 

 

Naked, lonely hand

 

Once more darkness intensifies in the spring sky.

Darkness,

The mysterious sister of light.

Like a lady who always loved me dearly,

But whose countenance I’ve never seen.

 

The shape of a fading palace in a long lost city looms in my mind.

By the side of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea,

There was once a city, a palace,

Where there were

Persian carpets,

Kashmir shawls,

Cockatoos and pigeons,

Shadowy boon of the mahoganies,

Orange sun,

And you, my lady,

You.

I haven’t searched for the beauty of your countenance

For centuries,

For centuries.

 

The spring sky brings back those memories, those stories,

From far distant lands, from long lost cities.

Fading manuscripts made out of leopard skin,

Window panes of rainbow colors,

Orange sun playing on

Persian carpets,

Curtains with colors of the peacocks’ feathers,

Glass full of wine,

Crimson red,

Your naked, lonely hand.

 

Your naked lonely hand.

 

 

Walking Along

 

I’ve taken solitary walks along endless streets of the city,

For years and years,

With a vague remembrance of some fading message.

 

Trams and buses move about the city, punctually, all through the day,

And then desert its streets to fade into their own world-

Their own world of sleep.

I’ve seen them sleeping in sheds and depots all night.

I’ve seen gaslights lighting the streets of the city tirelessly through the night,

Aware of its duties.

Bricks, doors, windows, signboards,

Drowned in slumber

Under the night sky.

I’ve absorbed their peace, their bliss, through my lonesome walks.

 

It’s late in the night,

Stars whisper around the peak of the Monument.

Have I ever witnessed something more seamlessly beautiful than this-

A starry lonesome Calcutta?

Eyes descend upon the grass,

Dew drops on the blades,

Strands of hay waft in the air.

 

Why did I take lonely walks along endless streets of Babylon

Through the darkness of the nights?

I still don’t know, even after a thousand years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calcutta Corner

Kolkata Literary Meet 2018

Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM) is one of the more recent additions to the wide repertoire of cultural events that the city of Calcutta can boast of. Though now there are more than fifty literary festivals in different parts of the country in a single calendar year, Kolkata Literary Meet still retains its uniqueness, thanks to the star studded list of speakers it has every year, the aura of the Victoria Memorial which hosts the fest and the rich literary heritage of the city which probably hasn’t faded over the years. The poet Jeet Thayil jokingly mentioned during one of the talk sessions of the fest that this year’s KLM kicked off smoothly with a poetry session- an idea that would invite some retaliation in some other parts of the country.

The first KLM I attended was in January, 2016, when I was in the city for a month’s break from graduate school in US. My mind was in quite a turbulent state that time owing to some emotionally draining events that happened around me then, and I was desperately looking for new ideas and philosophies. I attended several one hour talk sessions of KLM 2016 and each of them provided me with food for thought for the next several months. I ended up buying the books, written by the speakers in all those sessions, in the Kolkata Book Fair that followed the literary meet, took them back to US with me, read them with great passion for months and had long and intense conversations about the ideas in those books with my friends in grad school.

I wasn’t in Calcutta during KLM 2017, but this year (2018) I made it a point to be in the city during KLM. After attending Durga Puja first time in seven years, I feel like my bond with the city has been re-established and hence no way would I have missed KLM 2018. Here are my thoughts on the sessions I attended and found intriguing and some pictures I took at the sessions (This shouldn’t be treated as a comprehensive summary or review of KLM 2018, I attended only a few sessions and my thoughts here are more on how the ideas conveyed in those sessions  are connected to the central theme of my blog than on the ideas themselves):

Sesher Kobita Ekhono Keno Prashangik- Soumitro Chatterjee 

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It was surreal for most people in the audience including myself to not only see the iconic Bengali actor on stage, a few yards in front of them, but also have the opportunity to ask him questions. Even if this session had no topic whatsoever and the speaker simply talked of how he had spent his day, I would have been glued to my seat hearing the person, who played the roles of Apu, Feluda, Amal (Charulata), etc. on screen to perfection and formed a large part of my childhood, talk. The session however had a specific topic- the relevance of Sesher Kobita ,an iconic Bengali novel written by Rabindranath Tagore, in today’s times, and closed with Soumitro Chatterji reciting the last part of the novel, which is essentially a couple of poems where the two lovers bid each other goodbye, probably symbolic of the state of mind Tagore himself was in when he wrote the novel in the twilight of his career. The octogenarian actor elegantly reciting those poems with the darkness of the night slowly descending upon the magnificent Victoria Memorial in the background provided a mesmerizing moment that the people in the audience would probably remember for years to come.

Abastob, Agyato, Aparichito (Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar) – Md. Zafar Iqbal, Sirshendu Mukherjee and Binod Ghoshal 

The topic of the session was “Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar” in literature and the speaker panel most aptly included the iconic Bengali writer Sirshendu Mukherjee, whose novels for children were one of the best parts of my childhood and featured a lot of ghosts in a humorous way, and Bangaldeshi author and researcher in physics and computer science, Md. Zafar Iqbal. It wasn’t unexpected that a session on the relevance of ghosts and mystic elements in Bengali adult fiction would end up dwelling upon the possibility of existence of an abstract world or metaphysical realm beyond the physical world, which has been the major theme of my blog.

The most educated and well thought argument I have encountered so far in favor of the existence of the metaphysical realm is that there is a always subjective element to our consciousness. No two individuals experience reality the same way. Hence one should always be flexible about their conception of reality, leaving enough room for events that are labeled supernatural now but can be considered “real” in future. Author Sirshendu Mukherjee seemed to adhere to this view when he said that he neither really believed or disbelieved in ghosts. At least that was my take home message from what he said.

The most educated and well thought out counter argument to the above argument I have heard is that there is no empirical evidence to conclusively support the existence of the metaphysical realm. It is quite possible that the neurons in our brain fire in particular sequences to give us that “illusion”. Author Md. Iqbal probably seemed to adhere to that view when he said that in his opinion ghosts don’t exist but ghost stories do and being a physicist by training, he didn’t give too much importance to meta-physics.

Benche Thakar Lekha – Anupam Roy 

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The focus of the session with Anupam Roy, one of the most popular singer- song writers of Bengal in the current times, was on the poems, novels and song lyrics that he wrote so far as opposed to his music which had given him more fame and money. Anupam seemed to be particularly proud of his maiden novel “Somoyer Baire”, from which he read an excerpt that dwelt upon three smart young guys- an aspiring mathematician, an aspiring entrepreneur and a guy without aspirations, who followed different trajectories in their careers and lives, that crisscrossed a few times when they were munching peanuts sitting below the Shahid Minar in Maidan and reflecting upon their lives. It sounded extremely familiar and interesting to me. “Somoyer Baire” probably got into my “To Buy” list for the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair.

Performance of “Meghnad Badh Kabya” by Gautam Haldar and Naye Natua

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It will probably take me another few years of serious study of classical poetry, shadhu bhasha and theatrics to make a single comment about this epic poem and the performance. For now I just feel blessed that I witnessed this performance.

 

Philosophy · Science

There’s more to it than meets the eye

For a long time, it wasn’t clear to me why a stick inside water appears bent- a phenomenon we all witness in our day to day lives and about which we have read in high school Physics textbooks.

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A high school Physics textbook uses a schematic as below (Figure 1) and offers the following explanation: Light (ambient) reflected by the stick get bent when it traverses from water to air due to refraction. Our eyes can’t follow the bent path of rays, backtrace those rays as shown in the schematic (dotted lines) and hence we see the stick at a different position from where it really is.

schematic_1Figure 1- Schematic used in high school physics textbooks to explain why a stick inside water appears bent. Light from point A on the stick bends at the surface of water, our eye can’t follow the bent path and so we see image of A at A’. Using the picture of an eye and back-tracing the light rays to a point basically involve one layer of abstraction, which we don’t use in the subsequent ray diagrams.

In high school, I took this explanation for granted, reproduced it on answer scripts of examinations and even solved numerical problems related to it. But I never really understood this phenomenon until I got into graduate school, where my lack of understanding of this phenomenon eventually made me conclude that I do not understand how science works in general. Then after a phase of “soul searching” and of course reading up on several things, a much more satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon dawned on me, which I shall describe here in details.

The fact that this is a blog post gives me the liberty to not only write about a field of science in which I am not an expert but also state something which may already have been published before or has been proven wrong. I simply may not be aware of it despite talking to several friends, pursuing research in the sciences, and spending a lot of time on the internet browsing on the topic. I don’t have this luxury while writing research articles in peer reviewed journals for my professional career.

Another reason to write this essay is that my explanation starts from physics, that governs all phenomena in the physical world, but eventually delves into the mental world and becomes a neuroscience problem, true to the theme of my blog. In my opinion, the neuroscience aspect is key to understanding the phenomenon, but has largely been ignored in high school textbooks, which led to a gap in my mind between what I read in science textbooks and what I witnessed in the real world.

So let’s first get back to the explanation provided in high school physics text books. Light from the stick travels in a straight line inside water, but when it crosses the water surface it bends since air has a refractive index different from water. Then light again travels in straight line in air to reach our eye. The fact that light travels in straight line in a medium and that it bends at the intersection of two media are consistent with the laws of physics. But these facts alone don’t solve the puzzle. The last part of the explanation is that our eyes cannot follow the bent path and backtrace the incoming rays in a straight line path to form an image of the stick at some other position. But there are no details on why this is so in high school textbooks.  Similar issue arises with explanation of how magnifying glass works, why we see our reflection on the mirror or occurrence of mirages- basically any case where a “virtual image” is formed.

First let’s take the case of a magnifying glass and analyze it in more details. In order to solve the last part of the puzzle, we have considered the eye as a combination of a convex lens in front and a screen (retina) behind it in the ray diagram below (Figure 2). High school textbooks instead show the picture of an eye and backtrace the rays, which is basically a layer of abstraction which was the root cause of my confusion.

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Figure 2- To our retina, there is no difference between an object at position x with lens at position z, and a larger object at position y with no lens. But our brain always thinks that it is the second case and that is what we “see”.

Actually, if an object AB is placed within the focal length of the convex lens (magnifying glass)  rays from object AB go through the lens, diverge and then hit the lens of our eye only to converge again at the retina. There is absolutely no difference in the spatial intensity pattern formed on the retina between the case in figure 2 (object AB at position x and lens at position z leading to formation of virtual image ab at position y) and a simpler case of a larger object ab at position y with no lens at position z. However, our brain only considers the second case and hence we “see” a magnified object at position y. No matter how much we train our brain through physics textbooks, we can never instead “see” a much smaller object at position x even though we know that is the case physically. Thus there is a subtle difference between the intensity pattern/ image formed at the retina of the eye and what we “see”. This subtle difference is probably created by some extremely complicated signal processing in the brain. Instead of looking at the magnifying glass with our eye if we took a snapshot with our camera then also we will end up “see”-ing the same thing. This is because the lens of the camera acts like the lens of our eye leading to the same intensity pattern on the film/CMOS sensor as the retina. Then we interpret that intensity pattern with our brains the same way we do in the case of looking at the magnifying glass with our eyes.

Next let’s discuss why we see the reflection of an object on the mirror the way we see it. In Figure 3 below, we consider two cases: Case I (an object AB at position x and a mirror at position z) and Case II (an object AB at position x, another identical object CD at position y and no mirror)

RayDiagram2_1

Figure 3- To our retina, there is no difference between case I and case II, but our brain thinks that it can be only be case II. It is to be noted that A’B’ and C’D’/ a’b’ are formed on the same region of the screen. They have just been drawn slightly away from each other for the sake of clarity here. 

Again, in either case, the intensity distribution on the retina is the same- a focussed image of object AB and a slightly defocussed image of object CD, or ab (light rays from object AB get reflected off the mirror and converge near the retina). However just like in the example of magnifying glass, our brain only considers case II and hence we “see” an object at position x and another identical object at position y. No matter how much we try we cannot “see” an object at x and a mirror at z which is reflecting off the light from the object at x.

At this point, I guess it is obvious what happens in the case of a stick immersed in water. Rays of light (ambient) reflected by the stick cross the surface, bend, hit our eyes and converge to form an image on our retina which is identical to an image of a bent stick in the air. Just like the previous cases, we end up “see”-ing a bent stick in air (yes we still see the water in all practical cases but that is for other reasons like presence of the vessel, water droplets, water reflecting off ambient light etc.) as opposed to a straight stick in water with light bending off as it comes towards our eyes.

The subtle point I am trying to make here through all the examples above is that light can travel through a bent path on its way from the object to our eyes if it passes from one medium to another with different refractive index. The image formed on our retina will be identical to an object being displaced from its actual position and light traveling from it to our eyes through vacuum/ air following a straight line path. However our brain can only conceive of light traveling straight through vacuum/ air and hence we “see” the object at a position different from where it actually is. This particular behavior of the brain may arise out of evolution because we and our ancestors have grown up in a planet with air of a nearly constant refractive index and our visual perception is hence calibrated to that. Essentially, the laptop/ computer on which the reader is reading this article, the table on which it is placed, the window in your room, etc. are present where they “see” it to be present simply because light is traveling through a medium of fixed refractive index on its way from the object to their eyes. If the refractive index of the medium changed along the trajectory of light, they will see the objects at different spots from where they actually are. If we could do an experiment where we could have brought aliens from a planet where the refractive index of the medium varies much more as a function of height from the surface of the planet than it does in the case of our earth and ask them where they locate different objects on earth, then my hypothesis could have been tested. My guess would be that they would locate all objects on earth wrongly because their brains are calibrated to how light travels in their planet, which is not usually in a straight line unlike our planet.

At this point, the really imaginative readers may be wondering if what we see around us indeed exist or not. Probably they have asked this question to themselves before. My humble opinion in this regard is that there is no absolute reality, or at least we can’t perceive it. We can only be more convinced of the existence of something we see through other senses like smell, touch, etc. but can never be convinced of the absolute existence of something. A subjective aspect of consciousness always accompanies our perception of reality, which is essentially a calibration of the current signal we are receiving from the external physical world to some previously received signal, which we may have received in our own lifetime or inherited from our predecessors through evolution, as in the case of all the optical phenomena discussed in this essay.

 

 

Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma

“Hey, are you gonna be here longer? Then I won’t lock the door now.”

Jack asked Ary as he was about to leave the laboratory for the day. Ary didn’t know why he asked the same question to Ary every evening. Though he certainly wasn’t the first person to get into the lab everyday, he almost always was the last person to leave. He worked till late hours of the night while most others would hang out with their friends and families, attend parties or simply go to bed early to have an early start for the next day.

Ary’s eyes were on the computer screen, as the tip of the microscope scanned the surface of the last thin film he grew.

“Hey Ary, will you lock the door?”, Jack asked again not getting an answer from Ary.

Of course I would. I am a poor Indian grad student living in a foreign land. I have no life. I have no girlfriend- Ary told himself.

But then to his own surprise, he said, “No, I think I am done for the day. I shall leave with you. Lock the door”.

Ary packed his backpack, left the computer to direct by itself  the motion of the tip of the microscope over his dearest thin film sample, and got out of the lab, located in the basement of Hearst Memorial Hall, the oldest building on the University of California Berkeley campus. Outside it was dark already. It was the end of November. Days had already become very short in this part of the globe.

Ary hated this part of the year the most. It had been more than two years since he had moved to California from Calcutta for his PhD. He would go home every winter during the Christmas break and come back quite refreshed to resume research. So during this time of the year, with days too short and nights too long for a guy from lower latitudes like Ary and Christmas still a month away, he would feel exhausted and depressed after swimming with the sharks in a highly aggressive and competitive research environment of one of the top graduate schools in US for an entire year, and longed for the peace and warmth of his sweet home in Calcutta.

Ary paced across the campus briskly in the dark and reached the University Avenue, which started from the west end of the campus, pierced through the heart of the city of Berkeley which was rather somewhat between a college town and a full blown city and ended at the Berkeley Marina, which overlooked the bay that connected with the Pacific Ocean. Ary wondered where to go for dinner. He didn’t want to cook the same marinara pasta at home again. He called up Diggy, a fellow grad student from India and one of his closest friends in Berkeley, to check his availability for dinner. Diggy, as expected, didn’t pick up the phone. Ary followed the University Avenue to the downtown area, passed the dingy McDonalds restaurant frequented by homeless people and walked into Bobby G’s Pizzeria- a sports bar with some good pizza.

Ary sat at the bar and waited for his pizza. The “football” game on TV didn’t register in his head at all. He never really understood the rules nor he knew any of the teams or the players. He kept thinking about the results of his experiments or lack thereof, his withering interest in the topic of his research and the apparent lack of direction in his research work- an activity which occupied most of his time for the last two years.

Just when his pepperoni pizza arrived, another fellow grad student, Steve Lambson, hopped in and sat next to him. Ary had talked to Steve a few times in the graduate social hour, but he didn’t really know much about him other than that his name was Steve Lambson, he was a second year PhD student in Civil Engineering and he was from Minnesota.

“You eat meat?”, asked Steve, “I thought Indians don’t”.

Ohh, another conversation aimed at dispelling misconceptions about Indians’ food habits, which won’t serve its purpose! – Ary told himself.

Ary didn’t feel like talking. For a while he had observed a pattern about himself. His inclination to interact with people outside the Indian graduate student community used to be very high when he wasn’t occupied with research. But after he spent a few days immersed in research, he only wanted to talk to his fellow Indian grad students. The current conversation with Steve would possibly continue along the lines of Indian culture, which Ary was tired talking about after spending two years in Berkeley. The conversation could also take an alternate trajectory where Ary would talk about his own research and Steve would talk about his, with neither person understanding anything about the other person’s research. Neither trajectory appeared promising to Ary, but he was too polite in this foreign land to not continue the conversation.

Though the conversation took the well-trodden second trajectory, Ary was pleasantly surprised to identify that he was actually able to follow Steve’s research. In fact, he started liking it. To make it more intriguing, Steve also mentioned that there was an opening for a new PhD student in his project. Steve was deploying wireless sensors in the Sierra Nevada basin to detect the occurrence of landslides. Though the technical aspect of the project sounded interesting, what really captured Ary’s imagination was the location of the project- instead of spending all his time working on thin films in a basement of a Berkeley building he would do laboratory work out there in nature, amidst the majestic Sierras. Ary had driven to Yosemite Valley that summer with some fellow Indian grad students and was mesmerized by the Sierras. Though he had visited several hill stations in the Himalayas with his parents back in childhood, he felt that the beauty of the Sierras wasn’t comparable to any other mountain he had seen before. He wasn’t sure why he felt so. He meticulously photographed the looming granite structures, the serene lakes, the tall redwoods and the beautiful chapels with his newly bought DSLR and wanted to go there again soon to pursue his passion in photography further. Now he was probably provided with the perfect opportunity to combine his work and his passion.

For a long time he knew that he loved Physics. That’s why he was working all day in a laboratory trying to find a phase boundary in a ferroelectric thin film, which nobody had observed before. But of late he loved photography and nature and nature photography so much more. This was his chance to stop being an Indian nerd and become cool like an American. Ary walked home that night, confused but excited. However when he jumped into the twin sized bed of his small studio apartment in downtown Berkeley, for which he paid a rent half his monthly stipend, he was too tired from the day’s work and inebriated from the beer at Bobby G’s to think further and slept immediately…